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A Way to End Female Genital Cutting ~

Gerry Mackie

Junior Research Fellow in Politics
St. John’s College, University of Oxford

Female genital cutting (FGC, also known as female circumcision, clitoridectomy, infibulation, or female genital mutilation) is a painful and dangerous practice whereby part or all of the female child’s external genitalia are cut away. It affects about a 130 million women in 28 African countries today, and is one of the world’s major public health problems. Rather than diminishing with modernization, FGC instead has been expanding. Legal prohibition has consistently failed, but so also has noncoercive education about the many severe health consequences of FGC. However, it is plain now how to end FGC. The way to end FGC was invented, reinvented actually, by women in Africa themselves. This discovery should be publicized, developed, and adapted to local conditions across Africa.

This bewildering practice is nearly universal within the groups where it is found, has persisted for many centuries, and in some areas is becoming more widespread and extreme. One local woman said it will take 300 years to bring it to an end, and the casual observer would likely agree that it would take a very long time to erode such a fundamental cultural trait. However, it turns out that within an intramarrying group, if FGC ends, it will only end suddenly and universally. Furthermore, without the right sort of reform program, FGC will never end, regardless of the degree of economic development or cultural internationalization. Fortunately, the way to end FGC is almost as simple as the formation of associations whose members pledge to abandon the practice.

Why do I say that FGC must either persist indefinitely or end rapidly? Before proceeding with an explanation, first we have to listen to what the people who do FGC say about it. They say that FGC is required for a proper marriage, for the virtue of the woman, for the honor of her family. Moreover, most, until recently, would be unaware that other peoples do not do FGC, and would think that the only people who do not do FGC are unfaithful women or indecent people. Like other outsiders I find FGC horrifying to imagine, but for an insider FGC is more like dentistry than it is like violence. Americans subject their children to painful and frankly exotic dentistry practices, and not to provide dental care to one’s child is to damage his or her chances in life and marriage. Imagine that some foreigners come along who claim that dentistry is dangerous and leads to fatal diseases in middle life. We would find it very difficult to believe that there is a danger, and after we independently confirmed the information we would find it difficult to give up pretty teeth for our children if other parents didn’t give them up too.

FGC is a matter of proper marriage and family honor. An individual in an intramarrying group that practices FGC can’t give it up unless enough other people do too. FGC is a certain kind of convention (for a complete exposition, see my “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account, American Sociological Review, December 1996, 61:999-1017). To understand, imagine that there is a group that has a convention whereby audiences (at the cinema, at plays, at recitals) stand up rather than sit down. Sitting has been forgotten. Standing is both universal and persistent. An outsider comes along and explains that elsewhere audiences sit. After the shock of surprise wears off, some people begin to think that sitting might be better, but it would be better only if enough other people sit at the same time. If only one person sits, she doesn’t get to see anything on the stage. If only one family abandons FGC, their daughter doesn’t get married, because only unfaithful women lack FGC. However, if a critical mass of people in the audience can be organized to sit, they realize that they can attain both the ease of sitting and a clear enough view of the stage. This critical mass then has incentives to recruit the rest of the audience to sitting. Similarly, if a critical mass of people in an intramarrying group pledge to refrain from FGC, then the knowledge that they are a critical mass makes it immediately in their interest to keep their pledges, and suddenly makes it in everyone else’s interests to join them. Without an understanding of the underlying mechanism, the abrupt end of such an entrenched practice by means of a mere public pledge would seem to be nearly miraculous.

A peculiar characteristic of a convention like this is that even if each individual in the relevant group comes to think that it would be better to abandon the practice, no one individual acting on her own can succeed. Each person could come to think that sitting is better than standing, but any individual sitting on her own would only make herself worse off. Enough people have to sit at the same time. The way to do this is to declare a public pledge that marks a convention shift. Every family could come to think that FGC is wrong, but that is not enough, FGC would continue because any family abandoning it on its own would ruin the futures of its daughters. It must be abandoned by enough families at once so that their daughters’ futures are secured.

Speculation? No. I have shown elsewhere that the convention model explains the binding of women’s feet in China. The practice was beginning about the age of eight to bend the toes under the feet, force the sole to the heel, and tightly wrap the girl’s foot so that as she matured her feet remained tiny, perhaps a mere five inches in length. Footbinding was painful, dangerous, and disabling. Why did the Chinese do it? Again, it was necessary for a proper marriage, for the virtue of the woman, for the honor of her family. Footbinding and FGC are essentially equivalent practices, and originate from similar causes, which I do not discuss here in order to remain brief. Footbinding and FGC persist because of the same convention mechanism. Footbinding lasted for a thousand years, was universal among all “decent” Chinese, and was undented by liberal agitation and imperial prohibition in the 19th century. However, footbinding ended in less than a generation. In localities where it did end, it ended suddenly and universally, just as the convention model predicts. Therefore, the methods used to end footbinding in China should work to end FGC in Africa.

The work of the antifootbinding reformers had three aspects. First, they carried out a modern education campaign, which explained that the rest of the world did not bind women’s feet. The discovery of an alternative is necessary but not sufficient for change. Second, they explained the advantages of natural feet and the disadvantages of bound feet in Chinese cultural terms. New information about health consequences, again, is necessary but not sufficient for change. Third, they formed natural-foot societies, whose members publicly pledged not to bind their daughters’ feet nor to let their sons marry women with bound feet. The problem is that if only one family renounces footbinding their daughters are thereby rendered unmarriageable. The pledge association solves this problem – if enough families abandon footbinding then their children can marry each other.

The first antifootbinding society was founded in 1874 by local missionaries for their converts, who accidentally discovered the effectiveness of the public pledge. This local success went unnoticed, until it was rediscovered and advocated on a national level in 1895 by the newly founded Antifootbinding Society in Shanghai that rapidly gained 300,000 members. The pledge societies, and the cessation of footbinding, spread like a prairie fire. By 1908 Chinese public opinion was decisively antifootbinding, and footbinding of children was absent from urban populations by 1911. Other Chinese marriage practices, such as arranged marriages and early female age of marriage changed slowly over many decades. Notice that cultural regularities do not all behave in the same fashion. Unlike a practice such as arranged marriage, footbinding and FGC are each a special kind of convention such that either nearly everyone does it or no one does it, so that when it ends it must end quickly.

You might think that my wishful thinking has overdrawn the analogy and that it is preposterous to believe that tactics that worked in 1898 Shanghai should work in 1998 Senegal. Not so. When I first studied the problem I predicted that pledge associations would work to end FGC. I did not know then that some women of Malicounda Bambara, a village of 3,000 in Senegal, were reinventing the techniques of the antifootbinding reformers. After participating in a two year basic active education program developed by Tostan, a nongovernmental organization working in collaboration with UNICEF and the Government of Senegal, the women persuaded the various elements of their community that FGC should end. In September 1996, the village pledged to refrain from FGC, an event known as “the Malicounda Commitment.” A year later, after the traditional season for performing FGC had passed, no cuttings had been performed in the village. The Malicounda women discussed their decision with other Tostan participants in the villages of Ngerin Bambara and Ker Simbara. The people of Ngerin Bambara decided on their own to make a similar pledge in November 1997. The people of Ker Simbara decided that they could not stop FGC without consulting the rest of their extended family living in ten villages (consistent with the nature of FGC as a practice conventional within an intramarrying group). Two of the men went from village to village discussing the issues. Then, “After weeks of bitter argument, the villagers gathered in February [1998], and vowed never again to circumcise their girls. A centuries-old tradition was dead within minutes” (Vivienne Walt, “Village to Village: Circumcising a Ritual,” Washington Post, 7 June 1998, Outlook). These 8,000 people in ten villages enacted the “Diabougou Declaration.” The Clintons met with the women of Malicounda on their state visit to Senegal in April 1998, congratulated them, and encouraged them in their work. So far 29 Senegalese communities have declared an end to FGC, and the movement continues to spread.

Molly Melching, director of Tostan, a literacy and skills training program built around group discussion, whose clients have been the initiators of the reform process, tells me that the correspondence between the convention model and the events she is witnessing is “astonishing” and even “eerie.” The mass abandonments appear to be so nearly miraculous that responsible outsiders in the aid agencies and the media are likely to judge these events to be eccentric and ephemeral rather than as the spark that ignites a prairie fire as with the end of footbinding in China. That is why it is worth emphasizing that the convention model predicts and confirms the success of the process devised and carried out by the villages in Senegal. In China, the success of the pledge technique was discovered locally in 1874, but was not implemented nationally for another twenty years. My wish is that the success of the Malicounda Commitment be understood and replicated now rather than twenty years from now.

Some qualifications are in order. The events in Senegal follow from a larger process of emerging public deliberation in the villages, a direct consequence of the Tostan basic education program. Tostan provides training in personal skills, organizational skills, health, hygiene, and human rights, but never tells people what to do. The women of Malicounda decided on their own that ending FGC was a priority, and invented the commitment method themselves. The other villages have learned from that example, but have independently debated and decided the issue each on its own. Public discussion reveals previously hidden costs of FGC, and allows people wanting to end FGC to find one another and to carry their message to others. FGC is ending because, after education and deliberation, enough people want it to end. The successful pledges cannot be ripped out of context and pasted by decree into other localities. Nothing would be worse than coercive legislation or unsupportive pressure from the center to form associations that pledge to end FGC. The reason is this – the pledge technique can work beautifully, but a clumsily imposed pledge that fails or a sham pledge would ruin the credibility of the pledge tactic in that location for a generation or more. More generally, unpopular legal prohibition or harsh propaganda are doomed to meet with resistance. It’s just human nature. If some outsider tells you that you are a bad person because of a family tradition you follow, and you follow this tradition because you are a good person, then will you abandon the practice and thereby confirm the outsider’s judgement of you as a bad person? I think not.

The people who do FGC are honorable, upright, moral people who love their children and want the best for them. That is why they do FGC, and that is why they will decide to stop doing it, once a safe way of stopping it is found. Since FGC will end sooner or later, it is better that we put our efforts into ending it sooner rather than later. Let’s study good ways of stopping it, and let the people who still do FGC know what we and their neighbors in Africa have found out about ending it.

Contact Info:

Gerry Mackie Tel: +44-1865-277388
St. John's College Fax: +44-1865-277435
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United Kingdom Home: +44-1865-558031

By the Same Author:

Mackie,-Gerry 1996 Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account. American-Sociological-Review; 61, 6, Dec, 999-1017.

The social processes that create, sustain, & potentially end practices such as female footbinding in China & female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa are examined, with particular focus on the self-enforcing convention theory developed by Thomas Schelling (1960). Under conditions of extreme resource inequality, polygny emerges as females can successfully raise children as the second wife of a successful man more easily than as the first wife of a low-ranking man. However, high-ranking men have the power to enforce extreme measures of fidelity control, eg, footbinding or FGM, which are mimicked by lower-ranking individuals in successive generations. Under these circumstances, eventually all women must submit to fidelity control practices in order to achieve marriage. However, these self-enforcing conventions cited by Schelling can be transformed. The convention hypothesis predicts that FGM can be terminated through mechanisms similar to those used to end footbinding: explanation of the physiological dangers of the practice, international condemnation of the practice, & (most importantly) associations of parents who refuse to subject their daughters to the practice or marry their sons to victims of the practice. 2 Figures, 64 References. Adapted from the source document. (Copyright 1997, Sociological Abstracts, Inc., all rights reserved.)